SPRINGFIELD—Sen. Barack Obama calls himself a strong defender of abortion rights, and the presidential contender quickly condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on a controversial late-term procedure. The decision, he feared, "will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman's right to choose."
But this is how Obama voted in 1997 when he was new to the Illinois legislature and got a chance to take a stand against bills to impose a similar statewide ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion:
Obama's short time in Washington offers a limited guide to his political views and methods, but he spent nearly eight years in the Illinois Senate. "It was that experience in the legislature that convinced me that politics can be a noble calling," he said in a recent campaign appearance.
If Springfield is the measure of Obama the politician, a review of his tenure is a study in complexity, caution and calculation. In the minority party for all but his final two years in the Statehouse, he tempered a progressive agenda with a cold dash of realism, often forging consensus with conservative Republicans when other liberals wanted to crusade.
The insular world of Springfield also served as a prelude to some of the challenges confronting Obama on the presidential campaign trail. While some African-American colleagues in the state capital viewed him as a dynamic leader, others were put off by the pedigree of a Harvard-educated lawyer raised in exotic places far from Chicago's West and South Sides. Some in the Senate Black Caucus went out of their way to haze him.
At the same time Obama, who is biracial, bonded with a trio of white colleagues from the suburbs and Downstate. They became some of his closest friends, poker-playing buddies and sounding boards.
He took leadership roles on reform measures dealing with the death penalty, racial profiling, tax credits for the working poor and ethics, issues that earned him praise from Democratic supporters and even some Republicans.
But Obama wasn't above playing the political angles.
He pushed to get state-run pension funds to open more investment opportunities for minority money managers who donated to his campaign. During his 2004 U.S. Senate primary bid, Obama sent a newsletter to constituents at taxpayer expense that touted his accomplishments. It went out just days before the effective date of a ban on such practices close to election time -- part of a reform package he had championed.
Perhaps nothing illustrated Obama's calculating style more than his approach to abortion. The state Senate voted 14 times on various abortion restrictions during his tenure. Half the time, Obama voted "present."
He said it was a strategy agreed to by abortion-rights advocates to insulate Democrats from political backlash in more conservative areas. But Obama's Hyde Park district was one of the state's most liberal.
From the moment he arrived in the Illinois Senate, it was clear to many that Obama didn't plan to stay. Just months into office, he approached then-Senate Democratic Chief of Staff Mike Hoffman and offered to buy him a beer. The two adjourned to a hotel bar.
Talk turned to how Obama's name might play with Downstate voters in a statewide race, Hoffman recalled recently. "We talked about in a campaign, if you have a strange name, you could have some fun with it."
No specific office came up, Hoffman said, but the legislative freshman's message was clear. Obama "wanted me to know that he had other ambitions."
'Hollywood' and the upstart
Obama arrived in Springfield with an important ally. Emil Jones, then the minority leader of the chamber and later its president, fancied himself a mentor to Obama. To Jones, Obama represented "the future," someone who "embodies all that I dream and work for."
The two met on a street corner years earlier when Obama's South Side community group coincidentally convened an outdoor meeting just doors from Jones' house. They have been close ever since.
Obama needed a powerful friend. He had breezed to election in 1996 by forcing all his Democratic opponents off the ballot, including a popular member of the Senate Black Caucus, incumbent Alice Palmer. That bit of hardball didn't endear him to many in the caucus.